Turning from the regime while gaslighting the opposition

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Trevor Ncube, Alpha Media Holdings Chairman.

By Alex Magaisa
ONE of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s advisers, Trevor Ncube recently announced that he had resigned from the Presidential Advisory Council (Pac). In comments made at a business conference a few weeks ago, the newspaper publisher was severely critical of the Mnangagwa regime, describing it as having failed. In a serious indictment against his former principal, Ncube said Mnangagwa had performed worse than his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe.

Ncube described Mnangagwa as having “shown an amazing degree of doing things worse than Mugabe ever did”. Mugabe ruled the country for 37 years before he was removed through a coup in November 2017. It was that coup that ushered Mnangagwa into power and Ncube was one of the most vociferous supporters of the new regime. Ncube appeared to rue the fact that he had urged others to give Mnangagwa a chance and that he had been let down by the man who succeeded Mugabe.

For many hearing for the first time of Ncube having resigned from Mnangagwa’s close, his comments sounded like a Damascene moment. It was not that he had supported the coup, no. He was not the only person who jumped onto the coup bandwagon. Men and women of stronger moral fibre fell for the ruse. The difference is that the elite like Ncube carried on even when it became clear that the ship was headed for an iceberg. They were part of a small band that kept playing as the ship was sinking.

As one of the most prominent enablers of the Mnangagwa regime, they condemned anyone who dared to differ as not having enough love for their country. Some friendships and associations fell victim to the tensions along the way. It is not surprising, therefore, that when video clips of Ncube condemning the regime emerged, they generated much excitement and discussion in recent days. Here is a man who had condemned and attacked many for challenging the Mnangagwa regime.

As one of a coterie of business elites that crowded around Mnangagwa in the Pac, his recent statements represent an important vote of no confidence in Mnangagwa. It tells the nation and the world that even his advisers are deserting him. Pac itself has become moribund. One by one, its members have walked away, realising that Mnangagwa had sold them a ruse. There was frustration that their advice went into a dark hole.

The surprising thing is that the astute businessmen and women did not see what millions of citizens saw from a mile away, that Pac was just one of Mnangagwa’s several façades designed to hoodwink the world. It took Ncube and others a while to realise that this was an Orwellian farm where some animals were more equal than others.

The decision to back Mnangagwa might be said to have been poor judgment on Ncube’s part as well as others who went along with the charade. But to describe it as merely poor judgment might also be too generous an assessment. These are the business elite who knew what they were getting into and self-interest must be have played a major role in their thought processes.

They must have known that the new regime was incorrigibly bad, after all, they were the men who had propped Mugabe’s long rule. How could they have turned into better men overnight? For those who joined, the new regime offered opportunities that come with proximity to power. There were important rent-seeking opportunities. But five years later, their baskets remained empty while they saw the baskets of their peers overflowing with loot.

However, as others have observed, Ncube’s boldness may also be an ominous sign for Mnangagwa who is known from his liberation war days for his ruthlessness. If Mugabe was the architect of Gukurahundi, Mnangagwa was the enforcer in his role as minister in charge of State security. He is not known for giving a moratorium to those who cross his line.

Why would Ncube cross this hard man’s path so openly unless he has some backing within the establishment? It is this that is causing speculation that Ncube’s confidence derives from a faction that is rivalling Mnangagwa and is aiming to usurp power from him. Still, how the regime responds to these public revelations will be telling.

Whatever the case, what is clear is that Ncube’s comments and apparent turnaround have nothing to do with any newfound love for the increasingly popular opposition. Despite his severe criticism of his former boss, Ncube said he had no confidence in the opposition either. He has a legitimate right to express a lack of confidence in the opposition, but to pretend that he does not know its name is not only petulant but disrespectful and condescending. It’s classic gaslighting that a person can have an opinion on you but pretend not to know your name.

What Ncube did on that stage when he said: “Do I have confidence in the MDC, it is now called something else” was not only contemptuous but a deliberate attempt on erasing the biggest opposition party in the country. It was a cold and calculated assault designed to trivialise and exclude the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) from the political narrative. Ncube owns newspapers that cover Nelson Chamisa and the CCC everyday.

Nelson Chamisa

To his credit, his relationship with his media company is a classic tribute to the iconic Salomon principle in the law of companies, where the company and the shareholder are separate. Despite his personal contempt, his papers have given ample coverage to the CCC in an environment where State media is still heavily skewed towards the ruling party. But for him to use a business platform and pretend that he does not know the name of the opposition party is insincere.

As someone who was explaining to his international audience how Mnangagwa has fared worse than his predecessor, he should have known that one of the hallmarks of the current regime is its systematic attempt to co-opt and destroy the opposition.

But this narrative is inconvenient because it would inevitably lead him to recognise how the opposition courageously resisted this authoritarian strategy of co-optation and destruction. He would rather pretend to his audience that the opposition which has been making waves across the country does not exist.

But why does this gaslighting persist? Part of it is a historical contempt for the opposition which is rooted in elitism and both inter and intra-generational envy. Ncube never rated the MDC under Morgan Tsvangirai. It is not surprising that he does not rate Tsvangirai’s successor and the new party, the CCC.

The late MDC foundeer Morgan Tsvangirai

Ncube’s politics is rooted in what he describes as the “third way”, which is not quite the socio-economic paradigm in Western politics but represents something that is neither Zanu PF nor the MDC and now the CCC. One wonders whether he thought Mnangagwa and the coup represented the third way, but the enthusiasm with which he embraced it suggests that he saw it as an opportunity. He now realises that this was a naive way to look at it, hence his misgivings regarding coups.

There is a generation of Zimbabweans who still wander in the political wilderness, unsure of which direction to take. The result is that they tend to go where the wind goes at any given time, as happened after the coup. This generation, in the 50s and 60s, did not join the liberation struggle when other young men their age were crossing to Mozambique and Zambia. They were too young or chose to pursue their education.

Late President Robert Mugabe

After independence, they found themselves entering the middle class, as civil servants or in the corporate sector. They were the generation that was next in line to take over leadership. After all, weren’t they the learned and smart ones?

Unfortunately, the generation of war leaders had no intention of giving up power. It held on to power for decades and it took a coup to remove Mugabe. But it was the war generation that replaced him. The generation that had waited is still waiting. Meanwhile, when the MDC arrived in 1999, it was an opportunity to break the cycle.

But the elite were too proud to be led by trade unionists like Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda who did not have degrees like them. The arrogance was self-defeating. Many of the elite missed the boat and watched from the sidelines as their garden and house helpers became their bosses in local authorities. Then they complained of poor public services.

Many are still hanging there in the middle, unhappy with incompetent and destructive Zanu PF rule but too proud and too fearful to associate and work with the popular opposition led by a young man from another generation. Some of them simply cannot stomach the idea of being led by a younger man whom they consider to be their junior. They would rather endure more Zanu PF misrule even when it is killing the prospects of future generations. Power skipped a generation but some have delusions of grandeur and feel entitled.

Emmerson Mnangagwa

In trying to explain his change of heart regarding the Mnangagwa regime, Ncube tweeted a quotation saying “when the facts change, I change my mind”. Sure, his mind may have changed, but to claim that the facts changed is a generous view of the Mnangagwa regime. It was a military coup and no good ever comes out of a coup.

The facts are as they were in November 2017 and in August 2018 when six civilians were killed in cold blood. The fact that billions had been looted by a coterie of the elite were there in 2018. Yet despite those facts, he still chose to support the regime. There is nothing wrong in saying my opinion was wrong, but to claim that facts have changed is incorrect.

Some might say there is no point in discussing Ncube’s views. Sure enough, he is a private individual who is entitled to share his views. But when a man chooses to share his views concerning affairs of the State and those views become public, he must anticipate that they will be subjected to scrutiny. He gets those platforms because there are people who value his views. But if those views are not subjected to scrutiny, they set a discourse that will be self-serving and misleading.

Those who understand the complexities of power understand that there is a nexus between discourse and power. Those who generate discourse do so because they are shaping a narrative and expressing a form of power.

When Ncube occupies those spaces to share his views on Zimbabwe he is generating and shaping a discourse concerning Zimbabwe. In this case, it is a discourse in which Zanu PF is bad, but also in which the CCC is not only just as bad but is so bad that it cannot even be mentioned by name.

It is a discourse of exclusion of the opposition couched as criticism of Zanu PF. But Ncube has already demonstrated poor judgment over Mnangagwa and there is no reason to believe that his judgment on the issues he was discussing is any better.

The irony is that after these critical comments, Ncube and/or his media business may become targeted by the regime. After the coup, a rueful Mugabe explained how Mnanangwa does not forgive. “He has got his own views, he has got his own character, and it’s a character perhaps I did not quite see and know about him, that of not forgiving. If a person steps on his toes, he will go after him,” Mugabe said, shaking his head several times to express disapproval.

It remains to be seen how Mnangagwa will react to Ncube’s severe critique of his regime. He has been criticised before, but mostly by critics and opponents of the regime. But this is criticism by someone who was part of the inner circle; a former regime cheerleader who not only gave up but is telling the world why Mnangagwa has failed.

To be described as worse than Mugabe is a terrible indictment. Back in 2019, I wrote about the regime and its enablers. Perhaps there will be time before the end of this term for another article on the regime and its disablers.

  •  This story was first published in BSR
  • Alex Tawanda Magaisa is a United Kingdom-based Zimbabwean academic and law lecturer at the Kent Law School of the University of Kent.